A Screenwriter, a Hasidic Mother of Seven, and a Sex Poet

Marilyn Wennig, 36, uniquely combines the two estranged worlds of an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle with secular Israeli film and literature.

Marilyn Wennig, a woman who straddles two worlds.
Avishag Shaar Yeshuv

A day after Marilyn Wennig was interviewed on Channel 2's late night news show about the Oscars, she asked her parents how they liked the show. "You've put on a lot of weight," they told her.

In our interview she explains how in the secular world and the family in which she was raised in particular, appearance is a very important and competitive matter. This diverts attention from what is important, from the interior, says the lecturer and researcher of movies, screenwriter, poet, activist and film critic who became religious some 15 years ago.

The mother of seven is a member of the Belzer Hasidic sect. For Wennig, covering one's head and dressing modestly is a kind of rebellion. Discovering religion is also a feminist step.

Wennig, 36, bursts a lot of myths in our interview. In fact the preconceptions collapse even before you meet her, just by reading her latest poetry collection, "So What Do We Have Here."

In the poem called "Purity," she writes: "Do Haredi women touch themselves/ By mistake, with excitement, without noticing."

A poem about sex is not exactly what you would expect from an ultra-Orthodox Israeli mother. But Marilyn Wennig doesn't do the expected.

She was born in Australia to Israeli parents, and the family returned to Israel when she was three. As a child she wrote for childrens' newspapers, appeared on children's television shows and went to the Experimental High School in Jerusalem. She did her military service with the IDF magazine Bamahane.

Her husband Erez Hever was her first boyfriend. They separated and then reconciled at 21, got married and became religious. But whereas Hever is a full fledged yeshiva student, Wennig lives between worlds. In her Jerusalem home she is a Belzer Hasid, her children learn in Yiddish at Hasidic schools. In Tel Aviv she meets with film industry people and moves in an entirely different world. 

"Every day I go to Berlin," she laughs.

Wennig hasn't always lived this way. In the initial years after becoming Orthodox, Wennig familiarized herself with the new world in which she had chosen to live, gave birth year after year while also studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, earning a bachelor's degree in literature and a master's in theater. She also studied at colleges and seminaries for young ultra-Orthodox women. She established the first and only theater major for Haredi women, and has taken on some other jobs as well to provide for her family.

She did her thesis at the Hebrew University about ultra-Orthodox movies. The pioneering research dealt with the internal Haredi industry in which directors create movies for women only without government subsidies or official recognition. The thesis was published as a book called "Haredi cinema" in 2011.

Afterwards she served for years as a member of the cinema council, which she left a half a year ago. She doesn't have a particularly positive view of that nor of what is going on with the Culture Ministry.

Ultra-Orthodox woman seen wearing traditional head-covering.
Avishag Shaar Yeshuv

Culture, she says, is being overseen by clerks often acting not on motives of substance, and initiatives such as the loyalty legislation of Minister Miri Regev shows how much culture in Israel is not free.

Wennig was a teacher in a moviemaking incubator for Haredi women with the Gesher Fund, and an initiator of "Women Critics" a writers' group founded as a counterpoint to male hegemony in Israeli movie criticism. 

Today she's a member of  the Mendel School for Leadership, a doctoral student in film at the Hebrew Univesity, a movie critic for Salona and a partner in a Jerusalem city initaitives to set up an ultra-Orthodox cultural center called  "The Beit Yaakov Center for the Performing Arts."

Wennig is also at work developing a script for a detective film with Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis, a new periodical about the movies and participating in composition of a script for a new television series about adoptions.

How do you write for television when there is no television in your home, I asked her.

"Religion aside, television has brought a lot of noise to human existence, a lot of distraction," Wennig replies.

"A lot of our non-religious friends today do not have television sets. When we first began to develop the series, the writing and production team didn't know how to swallow the fact that the main series I am familiar with are form the '80s and the '90s. Forgotten series such as Thirtysomething or The Cosbys. It made them laugh, actually. But I said that my perspective is a fresh one and not based on formulas devised by others.

"Yes I want to reinvent the wheel and leave a unique finger print." Wennig says.

She believes that producers are not so enthusiastic, to put it mildly, with her not being up to date, but she makes up for it by her ability to maneuver "and I think that in the end they not only forgive but admire me, too."

Wennig sometimes pays a price for straddling two worlds.

A few weeks ago a group of extremist ultra-Orthodox women who cover their faces as well as their heads, sued her in rabbinical court alleging the cultural center she is establishing will bring disaster to young ultra-Orthodox women. The court rejected their suit.

"I've gone through not very simple days, of threats," Wennig says. "Violence and violation of my personal life. I felt like I was being followed that I was being threatened. I feel sometimes as though I'm the butt of a witch hunt.

Marilyn Wennig discusses a poem called 'Purity' she has written about sex.

"There are women who would celebrate if I were to be burned at the stake. A secular friend asked me, whether if I wasn't married and with seven Belzer children, would I continue being Haredi under all these threats? My answer was most certainly 'yes.' I don't think there is any other way to achieve holiness and purity as an ideal of life, other than through the Torah."

Wennig was fired as a teacher at the Beit Yaacov seminary last year because of her poems.

"The mothers showed the directors my poem, Purity and they said it was unacceptable for someone who wrote such poems to teach at Beit Yaacov," she said.

Five years ago when her first book about Haredi cinema was published Wennig was asked to appear on television and wondered whether that was alright.

"My husband suggested I write the rabbi. I did and my husand received a call that the rabbi said it was okay to try, to try and see if it would bring any good."

As Wennig sees it, she lives on the edge, without overstepping any boundaries.

But when she tried to enter politics she was stopped. She had sought to run for the Jerusalem Municipality on the "Awakening " religious-secular list in 2013. She was promised the number seven spot which could have gotten her elected. But many people were opposed and she faced threats.

"There was a period when  my husband couldn't even go to synagogue and they threatened to throw my children out of school," she said. She gave in and quit the race.

"Today I meet more and more women looking to change their stsatus in Haredi society," says Wennig.

"It's a wish, an attempt to maneuver. Many ultra-Orthodox women see academics, a drivers license as proof of their ability to maneuver between home and work. Some of them do it silently and avoid any social criticism, and some of them do it out loud knowing they will pay the price."

She is sad about seeing other women unable to fulfill themselves to the same extent once they return to religious roots.

"Sometimes I feel heartache when I meet other women I knew when they were secular and who have also become religious. I see that some of them have erased themselves. They sacrifice so much to become something  they aren't. When you play the game, you are always subservient to a script you didn't write and which you don't always like. I don't judge them, but I feel its too bad, because I know and believe it's possible to do otherwise, to be yourself and Haredi without one coming at the expense of the other."